“Australia is different. Australia is a country with universal subsidised healthcare, subsidised tertiary education with an efficient and fair loans scheme which is paid at an acceptable rate only out of the money you earn, near universal employment and an expansive welfare system that can sustain the unemployed for years if that’s what the situation requires (unlike the US’ time-limited unemployment benefits scheme).
… It’s not perfect but when an Australian retires, they will absolutely have some retirement benefits due to a pension system and the superannuation guarantee.”
(Elomis, Don’t Occupy Sydney)
Sydney turned on one of its perfect spring days last weekend. Saturday woke to rain that looked to be set in for the day and before midday the long sleeved, high necked shirt I’d put on that morning had been discarded for a cotton shirt as the humidity rapidly rose. By Sunday the weather was glorious. I’ve little doubt that those who spent the night in Martin Place for the Occupy Sydney protest were glad to see the warmth of the sun after the early dawn’s chill, as they’d spent the night without shelter or mattresses.
Sydney was one of 951 cities to hold demonstrations against corporate greed. It was not particularly well attended when I visited in the morning and again later in the afternoon of Sunday, but the protestors were all welcoming and calm. As a concept that grew through the initiative of several individuals who, until the weekend apparently did not know each other, but were eager to pick up on the message of Occupy Wall Street, it quickly found a structure of its own. General Assembly meeting at 10 am and 6:30 pm to discuss issues that were voted on by all; people taking discussion groups open to all; talks arranged and advertised on a makeshift notice board that had been setup at a makeshift information table; a cooking team who were preparing food for all the protestors; a media team and email address. For something that began so “organically”, I was impressed.
I made a point of introducing myself to anyone I spoke to at the protest and providing one of the Blak and Black business cards. I talked to several people about their reasons for gathering at the protest. Ryan, unemployed for 3 years and unable to find work since the business he worked for collapsed, was disillusioned by his inability to find work despite Centrelink training and is now dealing with the consequence to his self-esteem that comes from being on the welfare line for so long.
James surprised me a little. An economics student, I would have expected him to perhaps be more interested in the other side of the equation. Barbara and Freya , two more mature Indigenous ladies with whom I spoke, expressed their belief that the protest was drawing attention to an issue that they believed in – pointing out the greed within our nation and the world. We spoke of how separating children from families destroys belonging and how damaging it is to families. I stood on the fringe of a couple of the groups and listened to people speaking about being clear about what the objective of their protest was so that others not part of the protest will hear and understand what truly is the danger and the underlying premise for the international day of action.
It was a mixed bag of people. Mark Goudkamp, one of the organizers, admitted in a television interview that the protest would most likely flag come Monday morning, as he and others would need to attend work. Ryan, being unemployed, had every intention of remaining on Monday, but conceded that if everyone else left then he may simply have to come back next weekend. The protest, along with others around the world, has continued despite the working week.
It’s a far cry from the protests in the United States or Europe. The economic impacts of the Global Financial Crisis have obviously hit much harder and left greater social and financial dissatisfaction; Australians have apparently been more fortunate than those in other countries. Yet, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that the realities of the socio-economic crisis that is gripping this world will eventually come knocking at Australia’s door. A globalized economy with multi-national companies and competing national debts mean that dominoes is the name of the game. With China battling it’s own internal monetary issues that have the potential to impact on the international community[i] and warnings of an impending recession that experts predict will include Australia, there is reason for the pessimism. The Occupy Movement is that tolling bell of justice, warning us that the fates of our friends and neighbors both near and far will eventually be felt by us. No man is an island; no island is the world.
In essence I agree with the sentiments of the post by Elomis, but his statistics don’t sit well with me. The current unemployment rate for Australia as at September 2011 is 5.2%.[ii] Given that such a figure does not account for those supported by a spouse or those who have accepted part-time work when full time hours are not available, you can guarantee that there’s more than 1 in 20 people searching for a job. In an economically depressed area such as Sydney’s Fairfield the unemployment rate is estimated to be 10%.[iii]
As for a welfare system that supports people indefinitely, there are caveats. You must comply with requirements of the activity test;[iv] if not, your welfare is reduced or stopped for up to eight weeks. Failing to meet activity test requirements results in a welfare reduction until such time as there is so little it is actually impossible to survive. If you live in a rural area with only a few employers meeting the requirements of the activity test may simply be impossible. Ask the Indigenous people on the missions in rural areas; many are stuck, unable to find work, unable to move to a larger centre because they cannot afford the rent or bond for the dwelling, unable to leave family and the land to which they feel such a bond. They worry that if too many of them leave their traditional lands or the missions the Government will negate their right to it and absorb it into the Crown as has happened with Oombulgurri.[v]
Let’s not forget the universal subsidized healthcare. Yes, Australia does have a high standard of healthcare, but not really entirely comprehensive. A good number of service providers charge above the Medicare scheduled fee, leaving patients to foot the cost; waiting lists for elective surgery are months, if not years in duration (did you know that sudden complete loss of sight in one eye is not considered an emergency and you may have to wait months for treatment from the public purse, by which time, the damage may be irreversible?); MRI scans are limited to scanners that are ‘licenced’; dental care is all but ignored under the current healthcare system. The public healthcare system is overflowing with patients seeking to avoid the out of pocket expenses, our hospitals buckling under the weight of a system that no-one seems to know how to fix. Every healthcare provider can tell you what’s wrong in their sector; none can give you a comprehensive answer on how to resolve the ever increasing burdens of Medicare.
As for tertiary education, our parents, the ‘baby-boomers’, benefited from a system in which universities were subsidized so that no student left university with a debt. To quote one of those fortunate baby-boomers, it’s unfair that his generation who benefited in the post war era and have had long career stability are now pulling up the ladder on subsequent generations. Each and every student who studies a tertiary course must pay a Higher Education Contribution fee, which if not paid ‘upfront’ is deducted from your income along with the Medicare Levy, the Medicare Surcharge Levy (if applicable), the Queensland Flood Levy and the income tax.[vi] [vii] Now, if you undertake a course of study with a practical component such as in the paramedical professions, the providers of the practical placements for the students do not receive any of the HECS funding, although students are still charged a fee for the unit. So much for fairness and leaving a legacy for your children.
A final consequence of the affluence of our forbears is the increase in the minimum age at which a pension is available to Australians born after 1956, having been raised to sixty-seven.[viii] If you are eligible for a pension the maximum benefit a couple will receive is $609.60 per fortnight ($519.40 pension + $90.20 supplement). How much would your activities be curtailed if that was your income each fortnight? If you have worked your life raising a couple of children on the average Australian wage (approx. $67880 p.a. pre tax, $52, 300 net)[ix] whilst one parent worked and the other focused on parenting, you are not going to have much left in the superannuation account come retirement age and that pension will be what you rely upon.
The last issue that needs to be addressed is that of the so-called dual speed economy that our nation is seeing as the bitter-sweet saviour our nation. The mining boom has kept this country alive, but manufacturing is dying. Bluescope Steel is laying off 1000 workers[x] and the automotive industry has largely dried up. Ross Gittins will tell you that our future is in mining and perhaps that’s the case, but the resources are finite and once they are dug out of the ground what’s left is essentially worthless, destroying the habitat of the fauna and flora. I’m not against mining per se; but I do think we need to think about stripping every last inch f this country for coal, iron, gold, coal seam gas or LNG just to make a buck. Sure, the unemployed could perhaps try to get training in the growing mining industry, but there’s only so many that this new industry can take on, not to mention the disruption to family units that would have to move long distances. In addition, if the land is owned by an Aboriginal Land Council, some miners will not even negotiate to pay royalties to the traditional owners.
I can see why people are disillusioned, I can see why people are protesting in the Occupy movements, even in Australia. The distribution of wealth in this country is far from equitable. It’s not as easy a just getting a job; if you are unskilled or the industry you work in has been in demise, retraining may not be enough to get you on your feet again. If you are over forty, employers are more likely to look to the younger candidates who they expect will accept a lower pay and will be less likely to move on to a new job quickly. If you have a criminal conviction that comes up even when you apply for a job as a shelf-stacker in Coles, you’re probably not going to get the job. And the interesting thing is, many of the people protesting DO have jobs, DO go to work on Monday morning or ARE perhaps studying at university, but return in the evening or on the weekend.
This is the tolling bell of discontent, of dissension, but yet again, Australia seems not to be listening. Will it be to its peril?
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